One of the joys of living in the DMV is that it is both a strong area for theatre, and a strong area for family theatre. A case in point is the charming and clever production of OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist now playing at the Kennedy Center.
The distinguished cast list alone (Felicia Curry, Rayanne Gonzales, James Konicek, Donna Migliaccio, Sasha Olinick, Erika Rose and Arturo Soria) is enough to attract a discerning theatregoer.
In addition, this newly commissioned Brazilian musical take on the familiar Oliver Twist story is interesting enough to attract audiences of all ages without the excuse of an accompanying child.
The story opens as a “play within a play.” Actors and the director show up to perform a standard Oliver Twist only to find that they have the wrong sets, the wrong costumes, and are missing the child leading actor. Distinguished playwright Karen Zacharias has the cast quickly adapt the story from 1800’s London to modern day Brazil with the help of a “volunteer” from the audience. That volunteer will play the leading boy role despite being a girl because “girls can do anything.” The cast also starts performing several original songs with a Latin rhythm played by a band at the side of the stage.
The story begins on New Year’s Eve in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, where the local tradition is to dress in white, go to the beach, and make wishes to Iemanja, the goddess of the sea (Rayanne Gonzales). Most the granting of selfish favors such as money, anger the goddess as she notes that humans always want MORE. Yet the goddess is touched when the young orphan Esperança (Portuguese for “hope”) Olivério or “Oli” (Felicia Curry) expresses gratitude despite having next to nothing and encourages the goddess to look for the good in people.
Oli soon is befriended by a con man named Falcão (Sasha Olinick) and his youthful charge Zé Esquiva (Arturo Soria) [equivalents to Fagin and the Artful Dodger in the Dickens story]. Falcão and Zé Esquiva spot how effective Oli’s innocent charm can be in distracting the wealthy widow Rosa Maria (Donna Migliaccio) while the two steal her jewelry. Falcão believes that Oli can help them make a lot of money when Carnaval comes, which, to pickpockets, is equivalent of what Thanksgiving Friday is to merchants.
The two try to teach Oli how to make full use of her street smart wits in a smart and upbeat song “Jeitinho Brasileiro.” The term refers to accomplishing something by circumventing rules or social conventions, even if it involves shady behavior that may hurt others.
Falcão takes Oli back to his lair where she makes another friend, the washing lady Nanci (Erika Rose). Despite Falcão’s efforts to win Oli over to her skewed morality, Oli holds to her optimism and values despite being repeatedly put down for being “dirty and little and poor.” She only asks for more hope in the catchy song “A Little Bit More,” which serves as an unofficial theme of the musical.
Oli’s faith is tested when she is chosen to be a scapegoat by the corrupt policeman Sykes (James Konicek), who is also Nanci’s boyfriend. His philosophy of life is expressed in another of the production’s more memorable songs, “Eat or Be Eaten.” Sykes abuses his position for personal gain, singing (“I’m the one with power so you’re the ones who cower” and “I’m the one with might so I’m the one who’s right”).
Does Oli hold onto her hope and her faith in people? Does the story find a happy ending for her? It’s family theatre, so you can probably guess the outcome. In fact, due to the “play within a play” concept, Oli occasionally stops the action to call out to the “Director Lady” (also played by Rayanne Gonzales) for more insight into human behavior and for permission to change some of the darker plot points of the Oliver Twist story.
An overall impression of OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist is how well all of the performances and artistic elements work together. Oli’s sunny attitude and the Brazilian setting are reinforced by the upbeat Latin rhythms used in the ten original songs by Deborah Wicks La Puma and Karen Zacarías. Luciana Stecconi‘s scenic design of the hilly tenement backdrop features blue and green colors that tie into the beach and sea goddess elements. The performances directed by Juliette Carrillo and the entertaining dance numbers choreographed by Sonia Pessoa are energetic and fun. In particular, the acrobatic dance moves during “A Little Bit More” serve as special crowd-pleasers.
Felicia Curry gives a winning performance as the youthful and innocent Oli. It is a performance that is mostly optimistic in the Annie or Pollyanna tradition, but also shows some depth when Oli questions herself and her faith. Longtime fans will be pleased to hear that Curry’s outstanding singing voice is well-utilized in the enjoyable score.
OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist
January 30 – February 21
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
It’s a fine ensemble effort, with each actor adding memorable character elements. Rayanne Gonzales provides a real maternal warmth as the goddess Iemanja. Erika Rose provides another charming young woman for the audience to root for as Nanci. Donna Migliaccio is sympathetic as the lonely widow who needs to be brought out of her shell (and her penthouse).
Yet much of the spicy fun of the production comes from the convincing villainy of James Konicek as the corrupt Sykes and Sasha Olinick and Arturo Soria as the two con artists. Konicek’s deep voice and menacing tone pose just the right amount of threat to Oli. Olinick and Soria are amusing rogues that help keep the humor level high.
The packed press performance of OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist received an enthusiastic audience reaction. OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist demonstrates that top level artistic talent can produce family theatre that aims high and succeeds with an adroit yet understandable story and top flight musical theatre performances. It is also nice to see a story of female empowerment that can charm both girls and boys.
OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist. A World Premiere Kennedy Center Commission inspired by Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Book and lyrics by Karen Zacarías. Music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Directed by Juliette Carrillo. Featuring Felicia Curry as “Olivério,” Rayanne Gonzales, James Konicek, Donna Migliaccio, Sasha Olinick, Erika Rose and Arturo Soria. Musical Direction by Richard Miller with Richard Miler guitar, Leonardo Lucini bass, and Bruno Lucini percussion as live stage musicians. Choreographer: Sonia Pessoa. Scenic Designer: Luciana Stecconi. Costume Designer: Ivania Stack. Lighting Designer: Colin K. Bills. Sound Designer: Christopher Baine. Properties Artisan: Tim Jones. Assistant Director: Harry Poster. Casting Director: Michelle Kozlak. Dramaturg: Ken Cerniglia. Production Stage Manager: Taryn Friend. Producing Director: Kim Peter Kovac. Executive Producer: Mario R. Rossero. Produced by The Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.